The Settlement is a neighbourhood and housing centre in the inner Sydney suburb of Darlington that provides a range of services for the surrounding suburbs.
It’s run out of the same property on Edward Street that was purchased for £1600 in 1925, but the movement began in the late 19th century as a group of students from the university ‘settling’ among the working class in order to form a closer bond with the surrounding community.
Nowadays the unremarkable pale yellow facade on Edward Street masks a sort of child’s oasis, littered with all matter of distractions for children young and old. When the cohort from the Education and Social Work stream at the Bunga Barrabugu 2016 Summer Program arrived at The Settlement, vacation care was in full swing.
The noise of little feet was less a pitter-patter than a thunderous roar as a couple dozen kids of different backgrounds and ages occupied themselves with as much energy as pre-teens can muster.
Before we got an opportunity to meet any of the kids, we got the chance to speak to some of the people who worked at The Settlement.
Kristina and Claire are recent graduates from the social work program at the university who found employment at The Settlement after they did their required work experience at the centre.
“By studying social work, it gave me knowledge and patience that I might not otherwise have had,” said Kristina. When a child is behaving badly, one’s natural instinct is to hone-in on the bad behaviour itself, but Kristina said her study helped her to consider the positive potential that might lie underneath the kid’s actions. For example, if a child gets frustrated and punches a hole through the wall, while they need to understand that punching walls isn’t OK, the discipline of a boxing regime might help them organise their life in other ways.
Claire got into social work wanting to work with small children, telling the BB students that she thought she’d be intimidated by teenagers when she first arrived. But now she’s confident working with kids of all ages. She liked the way that her social work degree was structured, with two extended periods of placement (three and four months) giving her plenty of practical experience. “Also, the tutors and lecturers were on-the-ground social workers, so we had someone who could give us practical examples to go with the theory that we were learning.”
After speaking to Claire and Kristina, the students had a chance to play with the kids who were staying at vacation care (I was prepared to abandon the whole exercise and play with an enormous pile of Lego that had been beckoning to me since I stepped in the door).
The kids at the centre had been given special “spy packages” for the day, and had to finish a number of tasks to complete their training, including sticking up streams of crepe paper in a corridor so they could do a “laser beam avoidance simulation”. Sick.
“I didn’t come from a background of childcare,” says Agatha, one of the coordinators at the Settlement. She began work as a psychologist and working with children and families – particularly in the bush, and came to The Settlement after a stint in child protection.
Agatha speaks with pride about the vacation and child care programs, and with and enthusiasm that’s infectious. She tells me about an excursion to a construction sight that eventually led to the kids building a cardboard box city in the main hall over a particularly rainy week. “After visiting the Lend Lease sight at Barangaroo, everyone got a construction hat and parents we were getting calls from parents saying the kids wouldn’t take them off to go to bed!”
As we chatted, a steady stream of children approached Agatha with questions, asking when lunch would be ready or fishing for applause after completing a task, and she would deftly handle each approach. One of the more boisterous boys showed Agatha his almost-complete spy training manual, saying that he was done with it.
Agatha said that was fine, before a beautiful pregnant pause, “But you might not get your spy badge though…” The lad’s eyes widened like he’d seen the centre of the universe and it was made of fairy floss, before wandering off to become a fully accredited intelligence officer.
Gloria, an Aboriginal Health Worker who has worked at The Settlement for 20 years, was asked what it was that had kept her there for so long.
“I do it because it’s a safe space from drug and alcohol, because I see kids grow up and have families, and then I see their kids grow up. I do it because I can teach them to maintain culture in the inner city. I love it.”
All photos from The Settlement website.